The world has lately seemed a sad and contentious place, one where risks and consequences have grown larger and more negative in response to a new world order. Immersed in that feeling, I went to see Inferno, the latest film adaptation of one of Dan Brown’s less-than-literary art historical novels. Yet because Inferno’s use of its historical material differs so substantially from the other book-to-movie entries in the series, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, this new movie holds up better and seems more grounded in contemporary social issues in a productive way.
First of all: yes, I did pay actual money to see Inferno, and yes, I did enjoy it. I also saw The Da Vinci Code (a little dull) in the theater in 2006 and Angels and Demons (generally more engrossing) in 2009—if nothing else, I am a Tom Hanks completist, and all three of these movies star Hanks as Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor and renowned symbologist. People with ties to academia often scoff at these movies and the books from which they’ve been adapted because, among other reasons, symbology is not an actual academic discipline. Using a fake word over its closest real analogs, like semiotics or iconography, seems like a lazy cop-out. Even reading The Da Vinci Code as a 17-year-old, at the height of its popularity, I found the prose unskilled, at best, and was annoyed by Brown’s willingness to fabricate history to serve his cause. So… why did I enjoy Inferno?
Inferno draws its inspiration partially from the fourteenth-century masterwork the Divine Comedy, in which the Italian poet Dante describes a vision of Hell, or the Inferno, with nine circles. Langdon, though he does not speak fluent or even passable Italian, is a renowned expert on Italian art and literature and their symbols, and so outside forces summon him to Italy to investigate a trail of clues based on elements of Dante’s description of the Inferno and the actual known facts of Dante’s life. The piece of art that holds those clues, left deliberately for Langdon and his assistant to interpret, is a ca. 1480-95 map of Hell created by Sandro Botticelli, better known for his Primavera and The Birth of Venus. And beyond that, the clues are left in a reproduction of the original image, not in the image by Botticelli himself. This starkly contrasts The Da Vinci Code, where Langdon and his assistant discover symbols that have supposedly been hidden for thousands of years by secret societies with dubious motives. The elements of Dante and his writings that Langdon and his helpers discuss in Inferno might not hold up to expert scrutiny, but these bits of “factual” knowledge form the basis of a code rendered by a person in the present-day in order to pass a time-sensitive message. Unlike in Brown’s previous efforts, Langdon's work does not depend on a centuries-old conspiracy coming to fruition.
Furthermore, the plot of Inferno does not dwell solely in the realm of academic consequences. Sure, if Jesus had had a wife, as The Da Vinci Code posits, many factors that make up the Judeo-Christian worldview would be deeply altered. Yet parsing the consequences of that shift would mean understanding its rippling, incremental effects. Inferno operates as a more traditional thriller with real world consequences—someone is seeking to unleash a version of the Inferno, of Judgment Day, upon the earth. Consequently, there is, first, the moral question of whether or not that person’s plan has merit and, second, how to stop him once the determination is made that it does not. Both of these questions operate only tangentially in relation to the histories of Dante and his work; parallels and affinities appear, but they are not tasked with the heavy lifting of the story. For this reason, Inferno is more compelling and, ultimately, more successful than the other entries in his series.
I recently saw another Inferno review that snarked: “But if Langdon is distinguished from the other globe-trotting saviors by his PhD, why aren’t his movies smarter?” Those other globe-trotting saviors include, of course, James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Indiana Jones, all charismatic adventurers crafted from more urbane source material. If Brown’s writing leaves something to be desired where sophistication is concerned, his main detective certainly does not benefit from how Hanks plays Robert Langdon. His Langdon is something of a modest fuddy-duddy, an anti-adventurer. Indeed, the moments of Inferno that provoke the most emotion are not ones where he demonstrates his mastery of the subject or his adaptability in a fight. Struggling with amnesia for much of the movie, Langdon cannot manage to sort out his personal memories from his academic knowledge in a manner befitting a celebrated scholar. Though intellectual power has drawn him into his globe-trotting mysteries, it is no more reliable than anything else. He is fallible, but he follows the clues when the potential discoveries are too juicy for him to ignore. Robert Langdon has the heart of an academic, and Tom Hanks has the humanity to play him in action.